June 16, 2016
ASEAN Struggles to Unify Against China
Beijing’s pressure on Southeast Asia over South China Sea exposes regional bloc’s limitations
by Ben Otto and Chun Han Wong
Chinese pressure on Southeast Asian (ASEAN) governments over territorial conflicts is exposing weaknesses in the region’s ability to manage security and tackle sensitive diplomatic issues.
Those divisions were on display this week when top diplomats from China and Southeast Asia met over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built up artificial islands in waters claimed by several governments.
As the Tuesday meeting ended, people briefed on the matter said discord emerged over how the proceedings should be presented to the public—between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and among ASEAN members themselves.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister, who co-chaired the meeting, pulled out of a joint news briefing with his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday due to disagreements between ASEAN and China over how to publicly characterize Tuesday’s proceedings, among other issues, the people said. China had tried to compel Southeast Asian diplomats to use softer rhetoric, the people added.
Malaysia then released a strongly worded statement on behalf of ASEAN that voiced “serious concern” over recent tensions and opposed China’s “militarization” and land reclamation in the region. Hours later, Malaysia retracted the statement and said it would release a revised one, but hasn’t done so. Malaysia had released the statement before ASEAN reached consensus on a final version, the people said.
Several ASEAN countries released their own statements. The statement from Vietnam, which has clashed with China over competing claims, bore the closest resemblance to the withdrawn communiqué.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on Wednesday said any ASEAN statement that was released didn’t represent the bloc’s official stance. He said Singapore’s foreign minister canceled his press appearance to catch a flight home. An Asean spokesman said the secretariat hadn’t received any joint statement to circulate. Singapore’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
- U.S., India, Japan Begin to Shape New Order on Asia’s High Seas
- Asean Members Walk Back Statement on South China Sea
- China’s World: The Danger of China’s Victim Mentality
- Calls for China to Respect Maritime-Claim Ruling Grow Louder
- NATO General Says China Should Respect Tribunal on Maritime Claim
- Beijing Hits Back at U.S. Over South China Sea Comments
- Chinese Jets Intercept U.S. Spy Plane Over East China Sea
“The episode…clearly demonstrates that ASEAN’s aspiration to shape and control the regional security agenda is increasingly divorced from reality,” said Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The incident also reflects ASEAN’s inability to tackle other controversial issues. A regional anti-haze treaty signed in 2002 hasn’t improved the annual problem of toxic smoke blowing from Indonesian agricultural fires across the region.
An ASEAN economic union introduced last year fell short in its goals to cut trade and investment barriers and allow free labor movement. And little progress has been made following a 2002 declaration between ASEAN and China that set out broad principles on conflict resolution in the South China Sea.
ASEAN, comprising 10 countries of disparate economic stature and cultures, operates via consensus, complicating the decision-making process. Further, Beijing has been able to frustrate ASEAN efforts to find a common voice, relying on clout and largess bankrolled by the world’s second-largest economy.
China is the largest trade partner for Southeast Asia collectively and for each individual country, save Brunei. In 2014, China’s trade with ASEAN reached $366.5 billion, or 14.5% of the bloc’s total trade that year. The Chinese military dwarfs all its regional counterparts. Beijing has used these dramatic disparities in size and power to coax some Asean members into partiality toward Chinese interests.
For instance, Cambodia and Laos—as recipients of Chinese aid—have often sided with Beijing on maritime disputes in the South China Sea that they aren’t a party to. Vietnam and the Philippines, whose territorial claims overlap with China’s, have been targets of more coercive measures, including Beijing’s use of law-enforcement and civilian vessels to assert sovereignty in disputed waters.
China has also forged closer ties with Thailand since its junta government seized power two years ago, helped by Bangkok’s souring ties with Washington in the aftermath of the coup.
“Aid is a diplomatic tool that China has lavishly deployed, particularly in mainland Southeast Asia,” Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large and policy adviser at Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, said in March. “Several ASEAN countries have readily and happily accepted Chinese largess, and naturally it would be foolish for any country to scorn the economic opportunities that China offers.”
On Wednesday, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu reflected doubt over ASEAN support for a Philippine legal challenge to Beijing’s territorial maritime claims now being adjudicated by a tribunal in The Hague. “ASEAN may not take sides,” Mr. Ryacudu said. “Those who are making a fuss need to,” he added without elaborating.
The bloc of mostly developing countries was forged in 1967 during the Vietnam War by five governments, chiefly as an anti-communist group. It expanded over subsequent decades as the drive for Southeast Asian integration grew during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
ASEAN has long tried to build up its credentials as a unified body that would give Southeast Asia more economic and geopolitical sway as a combined $2.6 trillion economy that connects Asia to the Pacific and spans some of the world’s most important trade and maritime transit routes.
It has achieved some success in engaging global powers. In recent years, the U.S. and other Western nations have sent resident Ambassadors to ASEAN and joined the body’s regular talks. For the West, the region has provided a balancing point to Chinese influence in Asia.
Some analysts, while noting its shortcomings, see little alternative given ASEAN members’ nationalist priorities.
“ASEAN countries aren’t willing to share sovereignty, to the degree that European countries have been, simply to accelerate decision-making,” said Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.